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Stach comments on Kafka’s “wakefulness,” the “incessant presence of mind” that gives his tales the vigilant, uneasy aura that we can find in no other books. The alertness was vocational. “Someone must stay awake,” Stach writes, but the commitment to constant wakefulness took a hefty existential toll on Kafka: He was forever a stranger in the world. He stayed up as late as he could in order to write, but the lack of sleep drained his health. A strict vegetarian, he insisted on the method of eating called “Fletcherizing,” which required one to chew every mouthful for several minutes. Kafka’s father, a blunt, plainspoken businessman, held his newspaper in front of his face at the family dinner table in order to avoid seeing his son’s slow, determined mouth working its way through his plate of vegetables.
Kafka’s work, Stach says, “borders on the miraculous and mocks any conceivable social or psychological explanation.” Brod tried to wrestle him into shape by turning his writings into an allegory about the Jewish predicament in the Modern Age.
Brod, like many of Kafka’s interpreters, detracts from the hard, radiant perfection of his works by reading them reductively: “A Report to an Academy,” Kafka’s uncanny tale about an ape who becomes human, becomes, in Brod’s hands, a commentary on Jewish assimilation, which it assuredly is not. Brod was right to detect Jewish concerns in Kafka; his mistake was in seeing Jewishness as a straightforward, easily understood matter when Kafka himself did not.
“Brod always knew that he couldn’t hold on to Kafka forever, but he never really faced up to it,” the writer Elif Batuman remarked in her account of the decades-long confusion over the fate of Kafka’s manuscripts. Like every true reader of Kafka, Brod thought that Kafka was speaking directly to him, with religious intensity.
But even Kafka’s greatest friend and advocate was finally baffled by him. As the critic Erich Heller commented, Kafka created “the most obscure lucidity in the history of literature”; no matter how bizarre the occurrences he relates in his fictions, all is treated as if it makes perfect sense.
One time, Kafka, on one of his walks through Prague, ran into a friend’s father, who asked him about the ending of “The Metamorphosis,” then recently published. “Yes, that was a dreadful thing,” Kafka said seriously, as if he were talking about an actual event. All of Kafka’s writings seem to us ineluctably real: They show us a world more coherent, more perfect and infinitely more disastrous than the one we know.
Kafka once said that he was literature, and this turns out to be true: Everything we know or guess about Kafka’s life would fit exactly into one of his works. Kafka greatly admired Franz Werfel, one of the literary superstars of his day. Brod had been touting his friend’s work to Werfel, so finally, one day, Werfel sat down and read it.
He then composed a letter to Kafka in which he told him: “Dear Kafka, you are so pure, new, independent, and perfect that one ought to treat you as if you were already dead and immortal…. What you have achieved in your last works has truly never existed in any literature…. Everybody around you ought to know that and not treat you like a fellow human being.” Kafka must have been pleased, and terrified: Werfel had nailed him.
Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Kafka meditated often on Jewish themes in his notebooks and letters. Friends like Georg Langer, a close follower of the Belzer rebbe, tried to sway him toward Hasidism, but Kafka resisted. When he met the rebbe at a spa, Kafka was distantly fascinated rather than enlightened.
He wrote that “what comes from him are the inconsequential comments and questions of itinerant royalty, perhaps somewhat more childish and more joyous.” Kafka disdained healthy spirituality; he particularly disliked Martin Buber’s retellings of Hasidic lore. For him, Judaism was not a nourishing source of tradition but a potent absence: hard to define, yet inescapable. The crucial aspect of Jewish identity was that one clings to it without knowing why — without knowing, really, what Jewishness is.
But Kafka was also influenced by the startling alien intimacy of the Jewish God. Kafka is like the God of Bereishit, who asks Adam “Where are you?” We cannot hide our naked selves in the face of his directness. The message he bears is urgent yet indecipherable, and in its presence we stand exposed. In a book like “The Castle,” even the hero’s forlorn, comically intricate guesswork is stained with guilt, and as we read we become guilty, too. The God of the Hebrew Bible commands us to a fearful sense of responsibility; in Kafka the responsibility becomes limitless, synonymous with writing and with life. In this way he inherited the traditions of his people.
While walking in Berlin’s Steglitz Park one day, during the final year of his life, Kafka noticed a beautiful, boyish girl calling out to him. He smiled broadly. It was only some minutes later that he realized what she had said: the single word “Jew.” This was a somber premonition. The Nazis murdered all three of Kafka’s sisters, two of them in Chelmno and one in Auschwitz.
European Jewishness was a doomed phenomenon; Stach describes expertly the shadows already encroaching on it in the late teens and early ‘20s. The new Czech Republic was marked by anti-Semitism, and crowds in Munich demanded that the Jews suffer for their role in the unsuccessful Communist revolt of 1918. It is hard to avoid seeing Kafka as a prophetic voice in this regard. He told of a world about to fall silent forever, the world of Europe’s Jews. As he said to Brod, who had asked him, “Is there hope for our world?”: “Much hope, for God — no end of hope — only not for us.”
David Mikics is the author of “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age” (forthcoming from Harvard/Belknap) and A New Handbook of Literary Terms (Yale University Press, 2007). He is a contributing editor at Tablet magazine.